Music of the Holocaust

Handle’s Messiah, Bach’s Magnificent, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Brahm’s Lullaby are but a few of the common classics that are of German origin.

Hitler used musical heritage to promote Aryan superiority. This meant Hitler’s perfect race, blonde hair, blue eyes, well formed and strong. Music and art shaped German political policies and cultural atmosphere. Any written compositions by Jews were banned and it became against the law for artists and musicians to perform unless they became a member of the state sanctioned Reichsmusikkammer (RMK), and anyone who broke the law would be arrested.

The Aryan culture was created by many artists and musicians that were governed employees. In 1939 RMK leaders spoke of the elimination of the Jews from the cultural life of people. Jazz was considered to be “non-Aryan Negroid” and was banned. Radio stations were controlled and censored, and only nationalistic music was allowed. All other music was prohibited and labeled “entarte” or degenerate.

Songs of the Ghettos and Camps :

Ghetto songs had three major purposes: documentation of Ghetto life, a diversion from reality, and the upholding of tradition. The songs sung in the Ghettos showed the will to live, sing and even laugh. The Ghetto had its street singer, its coffee houses, teahouses, beggars and madmen. A popular tune said to be written by a beggar said, “Me hot zey in dr’erd, me vet zey iberi’ebin, me vet hoch deriebn,” which means; “to hell with them, we will survive them, we will yet survive.”

When it came to hating the enemy, laughter was a way to channel it. One person or a small group of people would perform Ghetto songs, with an accompaniment of a single chord playing instrument, a small band, or an orchestra.

Songs of the Camps:

At the five extermination camps, Nazis created orchestras forcing prisoners to play while prisoners were marched to the gas chambers. The suicide rate was the highest in the orchestra players than most other camp workers. The musicians where forced to watch as family and friends where sent to be killed. Auschwitz had six orchestras with one containing 100-120 musicians. A woman named Fania Feneion, a member of a woman’s orchestra in Auschwitz, stated that even though she had clean clothes and daily showers, she had to play “gay, light music and marching music for hours on end while our eyes witnessed the marching of thousands of people to the gas chambers and ovens.” Anita Lasker-Walfisch was able to survive Auschwitz by playing in the women’s orchestra.


Hitler created a “model camp” in Czechoslovakia called Terezin. This concentration camp was made to mislead the world about what was happening around the other camps and Ghettos. The cultural life at Terezin was very rich because all the Jewish artists and musicians were sent there. This made it look as though the camps where just a re-settlement area and the Nazis were treating the Jews very well in the camps. The conditions in Terezin were no better than in most of the other camps. For most prisoners, Terezin was just a transit camp on the way to Auschwitz.

Music of the Third Reich:

The Nazi regime had certain standards which had to be defined as “good” German music. Musicians had limited freedom as the Nazis attempted to create a balance in the creativity of music to please the German people.
Three of the restrictions when regarding musician and artists where:
1. “Loyal Nazi members who were talented musicians were guaranteed a job.”
2. “Loyal Nazi members who were not talented musicians were not guaranteed a job.”
3. Any non-Jewish person who demonstrated a “genius’ for music and was a member of the Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber) was permitted employment. This exception policy permitted musicians like conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler and composer Richard Strauss to continue working.
Three master composers that represented good German music were Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner, and Anton Bruckner according to Hitler and his second man in command, Goebbels.

Music in Response to the Holocaust:

Music in Response to the Holocaust can help us to understand the tragedy of this event. Composers experimented with many musical forms and where included in memorials. There where to sides to the music: dark and light, and faith and hope and all where very personal and helped to expand our understanding of the Holocaust beyond words.

Songs Written About and In Remembrance to the Holocaust:

Karl Berman, Terezin. Terezin was written by a Holocaust survivor who arrived in the concentration camp in 1943 and participated in many musical performances there.

Michael Horvitz, Even When God Is Silent. This dramatic and chilling song was written by text found on a wall in Germany by someone hiding from the Gestapo.

Oskar Morawetz, From the Diary of Anne Frank: Oratorio for Voice and Orchestra. This song was written by the test from the Diary of Anne Frank.. It is a tribute to the courage and nobility of the human spirit.

Arnold Scholenberg, A Survivor From Warsaw, 1947. This is a true story about a survivor from the Warsaw Ghetto. This song was written using a twelve-tone technique which the Nazis banned, and the narrator is to half sing and half speak the story. It is six minuets long describing a moment of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto.

William Schuman, Ninth Symphony or Le Fosse Ardeatine. Schuman wrote this piece to commemorate the slaughter of 355 Jews, Christians, and Italians in the Ardeatine caves. “I saw the cave and thought about all the people buried there and their lives. I’m a foe of forgetting.”

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